February 2024

QUNO calls on businesses to ensure arms exports do not infringe on human rights

As 2024 begins, the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) Geneva’s Peace and Disarmament programme has focused on its work on corporate responsibility in the arms trade, emphasising people at the center of arms control discourses and ensuring that states and businesses uphold their roles and responsibilities. 

QUNO is involved in preparatory processes ahead of the 10th Conference of States Parties (CSP) of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in August. Peace and Disarmament Representative Florence Foster was invited to a roundtable discussion in Bucharest for governments and civil society stakeholders to explore the role of interagency cooperation in effective ATT implementation, the thematic focus of this year’s meeting.

QUNO emphasised the importance of interagency cooperation with the arms industry with regard to meaningful human rights due diligence (HRDD) processes by both State and businesses, aimed at preventing human rights harms. The arms sector’s regulatory framework is built around the responsibility of home states as licensors of arms transfers; and respect for human rights therefore currently depends on the robustness of states’ human rights commitments. In addition, however, the business responsibility to respect human rights under Pillar II of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights “exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfill their own human rights obligations”, inferring that companies therefore need to go beyond what is legally required in the relevant jurisdiction or refrain from engaging in business that would otherwise be permitted under that jurisdiction. 

Florence Foster also attended a Wilton Park event on “engaging with industry” building on QUNO’s engagement in the CSP9. The conference gathered a cross-section of stakeholders from state, industry as well as non-governmental organisations and academics. QUNO continued to make the case that engaging with industry included an understanding of these independent and corresponding responsibilities to ensure HRDD policies and processes are in place and that these are preventive - aimed at preventing human rights harms - as opposed to purely defensive corporate due diligence - aimed at protecting the company itself. Importantly, with changing investor pressures towards more ethical supply chains, and increasingly robust legislative landscape and  heightened public scrutiny, failure to truly address the human rights risks entailed in current business models  would increasingly lead to not just reputational and financial risks but also legal risk of complicity in serious International Humanitarian Law (IHL) violations.

Ahead of the Preparatory Session of the ATT this February, QUNO will be encouraging states to ensure discussions on responsible business conduct within the arms trade have a sustained place within the CSP cycles - including through a multi-annual Working Group plan; robust Voluntary Trust fund projects, as well as independent initiatives by States Parties, and that these initiatives contribute to the:

  • Development of national and regional export control legislation governing the arms sector to include reference to the standalone responsibility of all businesses in the sector to conduct HRDD in line with the UN Guiding Principles. 
  • Establishment of independent oversight of arms transfers through parliamentary commissions, national human rights institutions, and other independent mechanisms. 
  • Granting of legal standing to victims of human rights violations originating in the arms sector to join legal actions against arms companies, including as partie civil in criminal proceedings. 
  • Meaningful public communication and outreach mechanisms to share information about risk assessments in export license approval decisions. 

As  QUNO continues to resist all war and preparations for war and believes that the deliberate killing of others denies their humanity, its work sometimes requires creative navigation of the realities to prevent harm by engaging with a wide range of  stakeholders, including the economic drivers of  arms exports: businesses behind the bullets. QUNO calls on businesses to ensure that exports of arms sector products and services do not infringe upon human rights protections and with that the corresponding states’ obligations to do so.

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